Aaron Ochs is the author of “Defamers: How Fake News Terrorized a Community & Those Who Dared to Fight It,” a nonfiction uncovering the defamatory, deceptive and criminal practices of online tabloid CalCoastNews.
920 KVEC and “Hometown Radio” host Dave Congalton is celebrating his 28th anniversary on the air. This factoid was shared extensively on San Luis Obispo County social media this week. Locals have talked about his love for animals, his jovial nature and the diverse guests he’s allowed on his show. He’s primarily known for giving a lot of people access to a microphone — sometimes people who don’t deserve the luxury of broadcast.
It’s easy to forget that Congalton was a stakeholder of CalCoastNews and served for a time as Contributing Editor. And even after he stepped aside from that position, he brought on their writers as guests. For nearly a decade, Congalton would promote the website’s reporting, their “reporters,” contributors and their unsubstantiated allegations, despite their growing controversy. Years before the #MeToo became a national phenomenon for women to candidly discuss their stories of sexual and physical abuse, Congalton and his guests would regularly shame women who were the targets of CalCoastNews’ ire, mocking their physical appearance and alleged promiscuity — at one point glorifying a domestic violence suspect and making light of his abuse against the former director of homeless services for Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo. In another instance, he mocked the former Managing Editor of the New Times, reiterating promiscuity allegations that CalCoastNews co-founder Karen Velie made.
Given Congalton’s history, you wouldn’t think organizers for Women’s March San Luis Obispo would appear on his show. But they did. And so has San Luis Obispo mayor Heidi Harmon, who repeatedly calls out sexism against women in leadership roles.
“Congalton is a shock jock,” Ron Roy, regional vice president for station owner El Dorado Broadcasters and former general manager of KVEC, told me in 2014. “He knows a lot of what he puts on the air is ‘shuck and jive.’”
The problem is that Congalton’s “shuck and jive” landed him in the hot seat with the San Luis Obispo Police Department. In 2013, Velie was arrested for suspicion of driving under the influence. Congalton, a close friend of Velie’s, invited her and CalCoastNews staff onto the show to peddle the conspiracy theory that her arrest was orchestrated by the police and San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Adam Hill. Neither Congalton nor CalCoastNews provided any evidence. The police department issued a memo, countering the conspiracy theory allegations on Congalton’s show. Around the time a unanimous jury couldn’t find evidence to support the conspiracy theory and found her guilty, Congalton made a strange pivot, discussing other prominent figures who were also arrested for drunk driving. Congalton downplayed the seriousness of drunk driving, despite once being the victim of a DUI accident.
Later that same year, Congalton would side with Velie again. This time, the controversy involved her grandchildren being taken into protective custody by Child Welfare Services. Once again, Congalton would peddle the conspiracy theory by CalCoastNews that the incident was orchestrated by the government and Supervisor Hill because of her reporting. Despite no evidence being shown to substantiate the conspiracy theory, Congalton helped rally the public to appear before the Board of Supervisors to demand the release of Velie’s grandchildren. At the time, County officials and staff reported receiving threats over the conspiracy.
Because Congalton played an integral role in these controversies, I looked into him, his past experiences as a columnist for The Tribune and his on-air comments. Four former Tribune staffers described Congalton as “persistently angry” and “vindictive.” They alleged he was particularly aggressive toward female Tribune staff, including former Tribune publisher Julia Aguilar and former executive editor Sandra Duerr. Congalton went on the record to deny an account from two former staffers that he reportedly slammed his fist on the table in front of Duerr in the early 90s. Duerr also denied the incident took place. But Congalton would take aim at his former colleagues in a series of columns published on CalCoastNews.
My reporting into his on-air and personal conduct rankled Congalton, who challenged me to a physical confrontation on-air. The resentment apparently culminated in a blackmail threat by Karen Velie to my then-employer. The threat: fire me or else she was going to go after my family and my employer’s family. Velie readily told my employer that Congalton personally gave her the idea to make that threat. Congalton never denied his involvement in the incident.
The more candid I was in describing the fallout from that experience, the more people personally reached out to me to describe their experiences with Congalton. The word that kept popping up to describe Congalton was “toxic.” In fact, staffers from El Dorado Broadcasters previous owners of 920 KVEC wrote to me their concerns about the toxic environment Congalton perpetuated on his show and they weren’t sure what to do with him. After reporting on this, Velie went after me again, falsely accusing me of spreading a rumor of Congalton’s impending firing in a CalCoastNews article. I would start receiving threats from Congalton’s supporters as a result of the article.
Between 2015 and 2017, four women approached me with allegations that Congalton harassed them. The harassment, they claim, originated from them “liking” my content on Facebook or commenting on them. Congalton reportedly threatened to ban them from appearing as a guest on his show. Though I read partial transcripts of Facebook conversations Congalton had with them, I was unable to fully corroborate any of these allegations because they didn’t want to cooperate. They feared retaliation.
This conflict would eventually come to a halt in 2017 when Velie went on a bizarre rant about me, falsely accusing me of making sexist attacks against her and her daughters with an assortment of community leaders using sexist language against her; false claims that she was “convicted” of some unnamed crime. Velie repeatedly and falsely accused me of calling her a “whore.” This alarmed me and KVEC parent company American General Media. As a result of her unhinged rant, Velie was banned from the show. The tit-for-tat between Congalton and I effectively ended after that incident.
28 years is a long time to be on the air. Some people may see that as a testament to Congalton’s long-term survivability and legacy, but that’s also 28 years worth of transcripts showcasing his abusive and corrosive behavior. In a larger market, Congalton would be fired. But because he gives people a platform, he’s accepted. It’s the same kind of mindset that existed for decades in Hollywood. Harvey Weinstein gave many women a seat on the “casting couch.” Weinstein said he gave women opportunity. Then times changed and rightfully so. Just because someone gives you an opportunity doesn’t mean their past is justifiably erased. Here’s to hoping times eventually change in San Luis Obispo County.